I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area). Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.
A few takeaways:
- Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga. Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape. During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter. This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
- I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations. My advice: preach the Gospel in season and out of season. I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness. I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
- All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right. It seems like a sea-change is coming.
- During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump. I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe. He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.” This is tragic. It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour. I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road. His testimony was a powerful one. While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
- We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community. The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over. George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham. Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him. This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham. It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
- It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.
What is perhaps most disturbing about [Dallas megachurch pastor Robert] Jeffress’s [book] Twlight’s Last Gleaming is the way in which his deeply held passion for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others is neutralized by his political agenda. The book begins with a foreword by former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee: “If you are looking for a sweet little ‘bookette’ that is politically correct and safe to read and share with staunch unbelievers so as not to offend them, then put this book down and keep looking.” In the first sentence of the first page, Huckabee alienates unbelievers and, in the process, undermines everything Jeffress says in the book about the importance of evangelism. But Jeffress proves in the pages that follow that he does not need Huckabee’s help in weakening his gospel witness. Jeffress urges his readers to give up on the culture wars and focus on their “unprecedented chance” in these final days of humankind to “point people to the hope of Jesus Christ.” Then he spends the rest of his book teaching readers how to more effectively win the culture wars. At one point in the book Jeffress attributes the steep decline in the number of new converts baptized in the Southern Baptist Church to spiritually weak church members who are afraid to offend anyone with the claims of the gospel. Jeffress may be correct. But the possibility that the decline in baptisms is related to the fact that most Americans now associate the gospel with partisan politics does not appear to have even crossed his mind.
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, p. 128-129.
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College is sponsoring a conversation with yours truly and Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on Monday night. The topic is “Politics and Evangelical Christians.” Learn more here.
On Tuesday night I was at Penn State University–New Kensington in western Pennsylvania. I spoke to John Craig Hammond‘s Religion in American Culture course (he is using both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Believe Me in this course) and I gave a public lecture on some of the themes covered in Believe Me.
The students in the class had just read chapter 2 of Believe Me and many of them came to class with plenty of questions for me. A few students asked about how I navigate my Christian faith and my work as a historian. Another student wanted to talk about the inerrancy of the Bible. One student wondered why I focused Believe Me on “white” evangelicals.
After class I met with two evangelical students and a Hindu student who wanted to talk more deeply about religion and politics in America. After this short chat we headed off to dinner with ten of Hammond’s first-year honor students. After dinner we talked about the fate of American Democracy and how these students might contribute to a flourishing republic. If you want to hear more about this conversation, I talked about it briefly on Episode 49 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. Download the episode when it drops next week. (Our guest is Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer).
My evening lecture drew a mixed group of students, anti-Trumpers, and pro-Trump evangelicals. The pro-Trumpers were most vocal during the question and answer session. An older African-American woman said that God led her to vote for Trump after she spent a long period of time in prayer. She also said she voted for Trump because she was pro-life and believed Trump would appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, believed in traditional marriage, and thought that God was still working through the nation of Israel. I told her that if I believed Roe v. Wade was the best way to reduce abortions, same-sex couples should be denied civil rights, and the Bible taught that the return of the Jews to Israel would usher in the return of Jesus Christ, then I might consider voting for Trump as well. (I don’t believe any of these things). This woman was also disgusted with some of Trump’s racist remarks (especially in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017) and told me that she was planning to write the president a letter about this. In the end, however, she thought abortion, marriage, and Israel were more important than race when she entered the ballot box in November 2016.
A white evangelical woman also pushed-back hard against my lecture. She did not like the way I characterized all of the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump as supportive of everything the president does and says. She was disgusted by Trump, but in the end she felt Trump would deliver on her preferred social issues in a way that Hillary Clinton would not.
I am now very familiar with these criticisms of Believe Me, but I have not been convinced by them. Trump is bad for America and Trump is bad for the church. I still stand by the central argument of my book.
Thanks again to Craig Hammond for inviting me to campus! I will be at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. on April 8.
Back in July, the Believe Me book tour made a stop at the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA. Tomorrow night, Tuesday, March 26, the tour comes back to the Pittsburgh area with a visit to Penn State New Kensington. The lecture is scheduled for 7:00pm in the Conference Center. I hope to see you there!
Back in June 2017, my family joined several Messiah College colleagues on a Civil Rights bus tour through the South. Our first stop was Greensboro, North Carolina, where we visited North Carolina A&T State University and the International Civil Rights Center. In 1960, four A&T students desegregated the lunch counter in the Greensboro Woolworths 5&10 store. Today the Greensboro Woolworths is home to the International Civil Rights Center. I wrote about my Civil Rights bus tour here and used much of the material from these posts in the final chapter of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
Yesterday, I was back in Greensboro to give the 56th Annual Ward Lecture at Greensboro College. My topic, as you might expect, was “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” The Ward Lecture is sponsored by the Greensboro College Religion Department and funded by the wonderful Ward family. My opportunity to eat lunch with the Wards was one of highlights of the day.
We had a good turnout for the lecture and a robust Q&A session. It was nice to meet so many Greensboro College students (especially Abby Bugger and Mackenzie Burns) and several folks from the area who are longtime readers of this blog. (I also met the brother of a long-time reader of this blog!).
Thanks to Jason Myers and Dan Malotky of the Greensboro College Religion Department for hosting me. Jason also took me back to the International Civil Rights Center for another tour. I also got to talk with the local NBC station about Believe Me. (See video above). And if you are ever in Greensboro and are looking for a good bed & breakfast, I highly recommend the Double Oaks!
Here are some pics:
When in Greensboro…
With Jean Fortner Ward. The annual Ward Lecture at Greensboro College was made possible through Jean’s husband William, who endowed the lecture to honor her contribution to Greensboro College. Greensboro College senior religion major Abby Bugger is photobombing 🙂
Talking with Bill O’Neil of WXII 12 News (NBC)
Over at The Huffington Post, religion writer Carol Kuruvilla has a piece on the recent Pew Research report on white evangelicals and Donald Trump. The piece includes analysis from Daniel K. Williams, Janelle Wong, and yours truly.
Here is a taste:
John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, told HuffPost he’s not surprised that white evangelicals’ support has remained firm more than two years into Trump’s presidency. As long as Trump continues to deliver on issues important to white evangelicals ― appointing conservative federal judges, defending religious liberty, and keeping the economy strong ― Fea believes this support will continue.
“While I am sure some white evangelicals have turned away in light of his constant lies, divisive tweets, race-baiting, and national emergency declaration, most white evangelicals are indistinguishable from the Republican Party, which continues to support Trump heavily,” Fea wrote in an email.
“As an evangelical myself, the difference between 78% and 69% is generally meaningless. The number is still too large,” Fea added.
Pew’s recent analysis also suggested that white evangelicals who regularly attend church tend to be more supportive of Trump than less frequent attendees. This was also true of white Catholics. On the other hand, white mainline Protestants tended to have more mixed views about the president.
Read the entire piece here.
Last night the Believe Me book tour made its one and only stop in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to Dale Soden of Whitworth University‘s Weyerhauster Center for Christian Faith and Learning for inviting me to speak at this excellent Christian college in Spokane.
Dale even gave me a quick tour of the Gonzaga University campus. We drove past “The New Kennell,” home of the Gonzaga Bulldog basketball team on the evening they received a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. I also learned that Bing Crosby’s boyhood home is on Gonzaga’s campus.
It was good to see my old friend Arlin Migliazzo (recently retired from Whitworth’s history department), touch base with Elise Leal (a very promising faculty member in early America who just joined the department this year and recently won the Sidney Mead Prize from the American Society of Church History), and meet so many of Whitworth’s outstanding history students. I also got to chat briefly over lunch with Jerry Sittser, author of The Will of God as a Way of Life, a book I once taught as part of Messiah College’s first-year CORE. Whitworth seems like a great place to work and study. It has been one of my favorite stops on the Believe Me tour.
I think it is fair to say that the audience response to my lecture was generally positive, but there were a few outliers. Students from the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at Whitworth were out in force. I know most of them disagreed with the central premise of my talk, but they were polite and respectable. (The Whitworth YAF chapter is reeling in the wake of a recent controversy surrounding an invitation to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro). Another student (I am not sure if he was part of YAF) wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat and then waited patiently after the lecture to tell me I was wrong about Trump. We had a nice conversation and I asked him if he would read my book if I sent him a copy. He said he would. The book will be in the mail soon.
The Q&A session was spirited, but that is how I like it. Whitworth was a great host and the students and faculty who came to the lecture modeled civil dialogue. I hope to come back to campus one day!
Off to Greensboro College in Greensboro, NC on Thursday. See you there!
If you are in the Spokane area come out for a lecture next week on Evangelicals and Donald Trump at Whitworth University. I will be there on Monday, March 18. The lecture is open to the public. Learn more here.
Watch presidential historian Jon Meacham talking to Joe Scarborough about Trump signing Bibles and evangelical supporters of Trump. Here.
I agree with Meacham, but I am disappointed in him. Last year I sat next to him at dinner before his speaking engagement at Messiah College and told him all about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. I am OUTRAGED by the fact that he does not cite the book here! 🙂 (I will give Joe a break here since I have never talked to him face-to-face about Believe Me!).
In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I argue that in supporting Donald Trump in 2016 white evangelicals privileged a politics of fear over a politics of hope. People who are afraid turn to political strongmen for protection.
Over at The Atlantic, Ron Brownstein notes that “I’ll protect you” will be Trump’s 2020 reelection message. Here is a taste:
In his marathon speech to a gathering of conservative activists last weekend, Donald Trump unloaded more than 16,000 words, according to the official White House transcript.
But amid all the meandering and asides, the belittling taunts (“Little Shifty Schiff” for Democratic Representative Adam Schiff) and geysers of grievance, Trump may have synthesized the essence of his reelection strategy in just three words toward the back end of his two-hour harangue: “I’ll protect you.”
With that concise phrase, Trump revealed volumes about his view of the electorate and the coalition that he hopes will carry him to a second term. The comment underscored his determination to convince his followers of a two-stage proposition: First, that they are “under siege,” as he put it, by an array of forces that he presented as either hostile to their interests or contemptuous of their values, and second, that only he can shield them from those threats.
That dark and martial message shows that Trump continues to prioritize energizing his core supporters—blue-collar, older, and nonurban whites uneasy about demographic, cultural, and economic change—even at the price of further alienating voters dismayed or disgusted by his behavior as president. It also shows that, even as an incumbent, Trump is drawn far more toward running on fear than on hope.
Read the entire piece here.
I just found about this, but people in a members-only book group sponsored by The Atlantic have been reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Learn more at The Atlantic’s Masthead Book Club.
And the politics of fear continues. This sounds like the New England Federalists after Jefferson got elected in 1800. Some of them thought Jefferson and his henchman would invade New England, steal their Bibles, and close their churches. The video embedded in Aaron Rupar’s tweet confirms a major part of my argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
One more thing: I want to know what court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. would actually do to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if she comes after his cows.
Several of you have asked me if I will still be doing public lectures after the Believe Me book tour winds down. Yes, I am planning to continue to speak and lecture as long as the invitations keep arriving.
While my last stop on the Believe Me tour is in April at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in the Boston area, the paperback version of the book is scheduled for January 2020 and I thus imagine I will do some more speaking as part of that release. Stay tuned.
Of course I am also available for lectures on my other books. In addition to those books, I am currently at work on a book about the American Revolution in New Jersey and am also hoping to co-author a young adult biography of Philip Vickers Fithian.
I also have some additional news on this front. Most of my speaking engagements will now be handled by my assistant Christine Walter. You can learn how to contact her about a possible lecture by heading over to the Speaking page on this website. Christine will be the point person for travel arrangements, receipts, honorariums, and just about everything else related to my schedule. She is happy to work with your institution to make something happen.
See you on the road!
Here’s what’s left:
February 26, 2019
Lecture: Georgetown Day School, Washington D.C. (CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC)
“Donald Trump and the Christian Right in America”
March 5, 2019
Mechanicsburg (PA) Presbyterian Church
Lecture and Discussion: “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”
March 18, 2019
Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington
Lecture: “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”
March 21, 2019
Ward Lecture, Greensboro College, Greensboro, NC
“The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”
March 26, 2019
Penn State University at New Kensington
Lecture: “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”
April 8, 2019
Boisi Center Event at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Hamilton, Massachusetts
“Evangelicals and Politics” (panel discussion with Randall Balmer and Dennis Hollinger)
The Believe Me book tour took me to the University of Southern California (USC) on Tuesday. In this case, the tour doubled as the inaugural Jack Crossley Lecture on Ethics and Religion at USC. Crossley, who I had a chance to meet over dinner (he regaled me with stories about his experiences as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1950s), was a longtime religion professor at USC. One of his former students endowed the lecture.
Thanks to Cavan Concannon of the USC School of Religion for the invitation and for the School of Religion and USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture for sponsoring the event. In addition to Cavan, I want to thank Lisa Bitel, Lynn Swartz Dodd, Rongdao Lai, Jessica Marglin, Lori Meeks, Diane Winston, and Arjun Nair for their wonderful hospitality during the day. It was also great to finally meet longtime TWOILH supporter Ron Schooler and his wife Nathana. Thanks for coming!
Stay tuned for more information on our next stop on the tour!
On Tuesday I will be giving the inaugural Jack Crossley Lecture on Ethics and Religion at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Learn more here. I hope to see you there!